Unvaccinated pediatric doc unable to get back to work after Southern Indiana District Court ruling

A pediatric critical care physician at Ascension St. Vincent’s Peyton Manning Children’s Hospital in Indianapolis who was scheduled to lose his job Tuesday because he refused to be inoculated against COVID-19 will not be allowed to return to work following the denial of his motion for preliminary injunction against the hospital.

Paul Halczenko, M.D., was among five plaintiffs who sued Ascension after the hospital denied their requests for religious exemptions to the vaccine. They were all placed on leave on Nov. 12, 2021, and were told they would be terminated on Jan. 4, 2022, if they did not get the COVID-19 shot.

In their complaint filed Nov. 8 in the Southern Indiana District Court, the plaintiffs asserted the hospital violated the prohibition against religious discrimination in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Ascension informed the federal court in mid-December that four of the plaintiffs had been allowed to return to their jobs, but Halczenko remained suspended.

The physician pushed forwarded with a motion for a preliminary injunction against the hospital so he could return to work. He told the court his work in the pediatric intensive care unit requires that he regularly practice the skills needed to perform complex procedures on critically ill infants and young children.

Finding the physician did not meet the required threshold for granting a preliminary injunction, the Southern Indiana District Court denied the motion in Paul Halczenko Dr., Jennifer Jimenez, Erin Nicole Gillespie, Valerie Fralic, Kristin Evans on behalf of Themselves and all those similarly situated v. Ascension Health, Inc., St. Vincent Hospital and Health Care Center, Inc. d/a/b/ Ascension St. Vincent Hospital, 1:21-cv-02816.

In particular, the physician failed to convince the court he would suffer irreparable harm to his skills and his reputation if he was not able to return to work. Halczenko claimed if he was out of work for more than five months, his skills would deteriorate to the point that he would be unable to pursue his career.

The court noted that even though the 7th Circuit has suggested that “deterioration” or “atrophy” of professional skills may support a finding of irreparable injury, the appellate court has repeatedly declined to issue injunctive relief based on those concerns.

Consequently, the Southern Indiana District Court held that while Halczenko has shown that his specialized skills will likely deteriorate during the pendency of this case, he has not shown he would be irreparably harmed as a result.

“First, while Dr. Halczenko has provided evidence that he has attempted to find locum tenens (temporary) positions in other geographic areas, he has not pursued full-time employment as a pediatric critical care physician outside of Indiana due to unwillingness to relocate,” Judge James Patrick Hanlon wrote. “Moreover, Dr. Halczenko has not submitted evidence that he applied for a position but was not selected because Ascension had suspended him. Instead, the impediment to securing locum tenens employment is the fact that Dr. Halczenko is not vaccinated.”

Also, the district court held, Title VII allows for a broad range of remedies that will address any harm to Halczenko, like reinstatement at Ascension with training so he can regain his skills.

“This wide range of equitable and legal remedies that would be available to Dr. Halczenko if he prevails cannot be ignored when considering whether his allegations establish a need for injunctive relief. Rather, the possibility that adequate compensatory or other corrective relief will be available in ordinary course of litigation, ‘weighs heavily against a claim of irreparable harm,’” Hanlon wrote, referencing Sampson v. Murray, 415 US 61 (1974), and Abbott Laboratories v. Mead Johnson & Co., 971 F.2d 6, 12 (7th Cir. 1992).

The parties are scheduled to conference Jan. 10 to discuss an expedited case management plan.

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